The general assembly hall was packed as the National Congress of American Indians lined up to elect a new executive committee at the convention center in downtown Tulsa, Oklahoma. The offices of President, First Vice President, Treasurer and Recording Secretary were up for grabs. The reigning NCAI President Jefferson Keel of the Chickasaw Nation had served his two-term limit of four years and the big question was “who would succeed him?”
The four candidates for NCAI President were Brian Cladoosby, chairman of the Swinomish Tribal Community out of Washington State; Joe Garcia, former NCAI President from the Pueblo of Ohkay Owingeh in New Mexico; Juana Majel-Dixon of the Pauma Band of Mission Indians in California; and George Tiger, Chief of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation in Oklahoma.
With all four contenders being more than viable, the stage was set for a runoff. According to NCAI protocol, to win the office a candidate must receive more than 50 percent of the vote. Anticipation was running high as the automated voting system spat out the first numbers for the new president. No candidate received a majority so that meant the two highest vote getters, Cladoosby and Garcia, would go head-to-head in a runoff.
Out of more than 18,000 votes Cladoosby nipped Garcia by a mere 25 votes. Each member tribe receives 100-185 votes depending on their total tribal membership. Had one tribe voted for Garcia instead of Cladoosby the Pueblo leader would have been back in office after sitting out two terms. The Swinomish leader was thankful and humble in victory.
“My initial reaction was ‘thank you Creator’” said Cladoosby in a post-election interview. “He chooses leaders. I’m a firm believer in that. I give Him the credit for allowing me to have an opportunity to do this. The second thing I did was kiss my beautiful wife of 35 years – Nina.
“I will hit the ground running,” said Cladoosby, who would be sworn in less than 24 hours later. “I’m just blessed that NCAI has an infrastructure that is second to none. We have professionals that are a lot smarter than me and I’m a firm believer that I need to surround myself with people smarter than me. One of the first things I’m going to do is sit down with my newly elected board. We will be doing an immediate retreat on this conference. That’s first and foremost.
“It will definitely put Swinomish on the map,” said Cladoosby about being the first person from his tribe to be elected to head up NCAI. “I know my people back home are very happy right now.”
The interview was then interrupted by a call from one of the newly elected president’s biggest supporters – his 80-year-old father. “Hey Dad, we did it,” beamed Cladoosby during this touching moment between father and son.
Garcia, the man who served as NCAI President from 2005-2009, was visibly disappointed with the narrow defeat. He had finished second in the initial vote and closed the gap in the runoff, but not enough to pull out the win.
“We gave it a good run,” said Garcia. “I didn’t believe (the vote count) at first and I said ‘recount, recount’ but I figured people did their jobs and we have to let the process go. I’m not going to make any excuses. The vote went the way it did and we lost by 25 votes.
“I just want to congratulate Brian,” added Garcia. “I think that’s what it’s all about, respect. He did suggest that I make myself available, because I stand for Indian country. Most likely, I will not disappear like some of my colleagues. One good thing that will happen because of this (loss) is that I’ll get to spend more time at home.”
The Northwest tribes made it a clean sweep of the top two NCAI leadership posts because Michael Finley, chairman of the Colville Confederated Tribes ran unopposed for the office of First Vice-President. Dennis Welsh Jr., a tribal council member for the Colorado River Indian Tribes ran unopposed and was elected NCAI Treasurer.
Robert Shepherd, chairman of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate of the Lake Traverse Reservation in South Dakota, was elected as NCAI Secretary. He served two years as the Great Plains Regional vice-president for NCAI.
“I feel I have a lot to offer NCAI and Indian country with my military background and my education,” Shepherd said. I understand all tribes are different, they’re at different stages of developing their governments. My main goal is to communicate with everybody, not just the tribal leaders. Using the modern media and technology we can advance NCAI to the next level by creating synergy with effective communication and information that we obtain and distribute.”
After the elections were over outgoing President Jefferson Keel of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma said he felt Cladoosby was well qualified to lead the National Congress of American Indians. He also stated he had not “given any thought” about whether he would run or not in two years.